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Guest column: Regulatory controls are designed for benefit of all


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By Geoffrey Callaghan

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When Garrett Hardin wrote The Tragedy of the Commons 50 years ago, his primary target was overpopulation.

More recently, his observations tend to come up in discussions around the climate crisis. I have recently assigned the piece for a seminar I instruct on the Ethics of Climate Change.

Hardin’s insights can also help us to make better sense of a thorny debate that is currently gripping Canadians — one whose physical manifestation has descended on the Ottawa, Windsor and elsewhere in the form of a protest organizers called the Freedom Convoy.

Tragedy of the situations occur when agents are rationally incentivized to behave in ways that make the collective of which they are a part worse off.

It is typified by a cost/benefit equation where the individual reaps all of the benefits of acting in a certain way, while transferring all of its costs to others.

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A good example is an unregulated fishing environment.

Although each individual angler is incentivized to catch as many fish as possible, if enough were to act in this way the total supply of fish would become exhausted thereby harming the fishing industry as a whole.

The solution Hardin recommended in 1968 — and one that virtually all modern governments make use of today — is regulatory in nature.

He was skeptical that individuals could be trusted to spontaneously act in more socially conscious ways, so he proposed that a change be made to the cost/benefit calculation at the individual level.

By making an individual bear an increased share of the cost of their actions, they could be incentivized away from certain behaviours that would harm the collective and instead act toward more socially advantageous behaviours.

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To help make the point clear, think again of the fishing example.

By imposing tight regulations on who is allowed to fish and when, plus how many fish any one individual is allowed to catch at a given time, the total supply of fish can be maintained. This ensures the fishing industry remains healthy and operational into the future.

True, the cost to the individual angler will rise in the wake of these regulatory adjustments, but the problem posed by the tragedy for others is overcome.

The debate over vaccines can to a large extent be clarified if we think of it in these terms.

Unless one buys into an anti-social conception of freedom — of the type “I can do whatever I want, wherever I want” — equating regulatory responses on vaccines to a violation of one’s fundamental interest in freedom is a mistake.

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The regulatory mechanisms governments at both the federal and provincial levels have used to incentivize vaccination do not amount to a requirement to become vaccinated, but merely serve to adjust the cost/benefit calculation at an individual level.

One’s freedom to choose against vaccination remains intact, but it is now in an environment where each individual is required to take on more costs associated with that choice of action — or in this case, inaction.

In this way, individuals are prevented from simply passing those costs onto everyone else.

It is no doubt true from the perspective of each individual, a change in the cost/benefit calculation can feel like an infringement of one’s freedom.

After all, actions that were previously available to the individual at little or no cost now have a cost attached to them. But this does not mean the individual’s freedom of choice has been taken away any more than placing regulations on anglers means their freedom to fish has been taken away.

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Those who transport goods across international borders now have to abide by the same conditions that apply to all who enter Canada. Given that we live in a democratic nation, these individuals have every right to challenge the conditions they now face.

What is more, living in a democratic nation, the rest of us should make every effort to try to understand the nature of their challenge.

But the challenge should at the very least be directed at its proper target.

This isn’t a debate about freedom. It is a debate about who should bear the costs associated with one’s choice to remain unvaccinated — the individual or society.

Geoff Callaghan is an assistant professor at the University of Windsor in the political science department who specializes in law and politics.

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